BALIKPAPAN, Indonesia — As the small red car came to a halt, the window slid down and a hand emerged, tossing some yellow crackers on the ground. Seconds later, a group of southern pig-tailed macaques, a monkey species native to the island of Borneo, swarmed the area and devoured the food in an instant.
Until recently, this road in the wilds of Indonesia was seldom used by either people or macaques, an endangered species that spends most of its time in trees. But with its repairs as part of the development of a new national capital, Nusantara, it is drawing macaques who have discovered the road’s new users are a reliable source of food.
“They were rarely seen before that,” said Satwika Satria Prahita, a resident of the nearby port city of Balikpapan.
The Indonesian government says the new capital is necessary because the 11 million residents of the congested current capital, Jakarta, face environmental threats including pollution, sinking land and rising seas. Construction has started on the chosen site 1,200 miles away in Borneo, an island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei that has some of the world’s highest levels of biodiversity.
Officials say Nusantara will adopt a “forest city” concept, in which more than 75% of the area is green space, and that it will be carbon neutral by the time construction is completed is 2045. But conservationists worry about the impact on orangutans, dolphins and other wildlife in and around the new capital, citing the public’s lack of conservation knowledge.
“Our big homework now is figuring out how to educate the people,” said Hadi S. Alikodra, a professor in the faculty of forestry and environment at IPB University in Bogor, Indonesia.
Experts have urged the government to protect wildlife from construction workers, as well as the 1.9 million people who are expected to eventually live in Nusantara, which is set to be inaugurated in August next year. Otherwise, there could be some disastrous conflicts between humans and animals, said Muhammad Ali Imron, a wildlife expert at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
“And it will lead to biodiversity loss,” he said.
Wiratno, an official with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, acknowledged the concerns but said the government was making wildlife protection a top priority.
“We will intensively educate the workers and all of the people about conservation and how to live among wildlife in this forest city,” said Wiratno, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
He said Nusantara’s 75% forest cover would make it an attractive place for animals to live. As a safeguard against conflict between humans and animals, he said, the government is establishing a wildlife response unit and call center.
Some of those potential conflicts can be dangerous. Conservationists say large-scale mangrove clearings and an increase in activity by large ships have already spurred crocodile attacks on local fishermen, putting them in a bind.
“If I can choose, I would rather go fishing in daylight to avoid encounters with crocodiles,” said Hasanudin, a fisherman in the village of Gersik. “But the outcome will be less than doing it at night or before dawn.”
According to the Indonesian Ministry of National Development Planning, the new capital — whose name means “archipelago” — could one day encompass almost 1,000 square miles of East Kalimantan province, or four times the size of Jakarta.
About 125 square miles of that land is classified as primary forest that has been untouched by human activity, according to Auriga, an Indonesian nongovernmental organization focused on biodiversity. There are also about 75 square miles of mangroves, about three-quarters of which is considered nonforest, meaning it can be converted for agricultural, residential or industrial use.
Mangroves are the natural habitat for the proboscis monkey, a primate native to Borneo that has been classified as endangered since 2015.
“You can’t find the monkey anywhere but in Indonesia,” Alikodra said.
About 1,400 proboscis monkeys live in the mangroves of Balikpapan Bay, or 5% of the total population in Borneo, according to a coalition of local civil society groups.
The bay, which will serve as Nusantara’s harbor, is also home to the Irrawaddy dolphin, another critically endangered species. According to the most recent survey by the Conservation Foundation for Rare Aquatic Species of Indonesia, there were only 71 dolphins left in the area in 2015.
The escalated activity in Balikpapan Bay, either during construction or once Nusantara is populated, is likely to put stress on the dolphins’ environment, the coalition said, pointing to a 2018 oil spill that killed four of the creatures.
Another endangered species that could be affected by the Nusantara project is orangutans, about 200 of whom live in a local sanctuary. Aldrijanto Priadjati, East Kalimantan program manager for the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, said the new capital would consume all of the sanctuary’s 28 square miles.
He said the Nusantara project was an opportunity for officials to demonstrate their commitment to orangutan protection.
“We welcome the project with open arms, and (are) open to help the government establish safeguards for these orangutans,” Priadjati said.
Medrilzam, director of environmental affairs at the Ministry of National Development Planning, said the Nusantara project would create environmental solutions rather than problems.
“We have carefully planned this project in all aspects, including the environment,” said Medrilzam, who also goes by one name.
He said he was confident that no mangroves would be converted and the orangutan sanctuary would be unaffected.
“We will protect these iconic ecosystems,” he said.